December 5, 2010, Kolkata (Calcutta Tube): Sangeeta Datta is based in London. She flits in and out of India and travels across Calcutta, her hometown and Kolkata where her parents live through Mumbai and back to London. She is a woman of multi-faceted talents what with a Ph.D. in English literature, teaching stints ranging from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, to SOAS in UK. She is a trained singer of Tagore songs. She also founded a film society in London with like-minded NRIs called In Focus, whose aim was to promote and perpetuate a culture of good Indian cinema in the UK. She has written an in-depth book entitled Shyam Benegal published in India by Roli Books commissioned by the British Film Institute.
How did you gather experience before venturing into your first, full-fledged feature film?
My debut as filmmaker began with The Way I See It, a documentary on Indian women directors a decade ago. I also made In Search of Durga on the UK diaspora, culture and religion, Working with Worries on children with learning problems and a short film called Letter from an Ordinary Girl which was a contemporary adaptation of Tagore’s Sadharan Meye. I did a few stints of teaching and event management for the Asian Arts Council, School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London. I then settled down to write a book on Indian women directors. My research for the book brought me back to India to interview these directors. It was becoming too ambitious. So, I decided to capture my research for posterity on videotape. When I went back, I found that I had recorded enough material for a feature-length documentary running into 80 minutes. That is how The Way I See It was born. I also worked with Basu Bhattacharya right through his last film Aastha and learnt a lot. My work as associate director to Rituparno Ghosh in Chokher Bali, Raincoat, Antarmahal and The Last Lear was another training ground. I was also associate director of Brick Lane (UK).
Your first feature film Life Goes On is based on your own story. Why did you give it this title?
I have borrowed the title from the opening line of a famous Neil Diamond song of the 1960s that begins with Life Goes On and the Rest of the World Keeps Turning. It seemed to me to fit into the story, the characters and their relationships very well. The structure of the plot is based on the foundation of death. But the film is not about death. It is about how to keep on living after having lost someone very close to you. This line is repeated like a metaphor throughout the film by some of the characters. The story is inspired by the old tale of King Lear and his daughters. It tries to find meaning for Shakespeare’s King Lear in a contemporary British context.
[ReviewAZON asin=”B003M5P9GK” display=”inlinepost”]What made you decide to make the film in English?
For me, located as I am as a diaspora filmmaker in London making a film on Bengalis living in London, the choice of language came spontaneously and naturally and was not by design. Yet, a lot of Bengali comes out of the central character, Manju, portrayed by Sharmila Tagore. There have been no diaspora film made here showing the Bengali identity. After Ritwik Ghatak, we have not really looked at the refugee identity in that sense. English as the choice of language has a wider reach among non-Indians who speak English and among Indians who speak English, specially the younger Bengali diaspora in UK who speak mostly in English.
What motivated you to write the story? Were you inspired by a true story? Or is it totally rooted in fiction?
The story has been inspired by my personal experience of the diaspora identity of Bengalis in Britain on the one hand, and the imaginary spaces of loss on the other. Some of my teaching experience also worked its way into some of the ideas and issues the story deals with. As a teacher, even now I come in contact with lots of youngsters and the constant flux in the value system that involves issues like alternate sexuality, unwed pregnancy and abortion, and so on. In this sense, I can say that Life Goes On is almost like a lengthy docu-drama comprised of the experiences I have encountered over my long span as a diaspora Bengali myself.
What strategy do you follow as director? Are you very rigid or do you permit for improvisations by your actors or what?
I had a bound script. I am quite organised that way. I organised some workshops with the younger characters to bring out their language. I did allow some improvisations but only when they kept in sync with the time, the scene and the characters, not otherwise. The actors were drawn from a wide range of backgrounds so their rhythms were different. The Indian actors had to rehearse organically with the British actors such as the rehearsals within the film of Shakespeare’s King Lear in which Soha Ali Khan who plays the youngest daughter of Manju and Sanjay in the film and Cordelia in King Lear within the film. Sharmila-di rehearsed with her three daughters. Om Puri came just one day before the shoot and had to report directly on the sets. But being the experienced and talented actor he is, he picked up the tuning at once.
How did you zero in on the casting of the film?
I originally wanted Soumitra Chatterjee to play the role of Dr. Sanjay Banerjee, the arrogant and very successful Bengali doctor settled in UK. But he was very sick and I requested Girish Karnad to step in. He very graciously agreed. I have known Girish since he was director of Nehru Centre in London between 2003 and 2005. He was also Director of Culture under the Ministry of Culture. So it was more a question of my being familiar with the actors who I knew would be very good than anything else. Interestingly, Om was a student of the FTII in Pune when Girish was its Director. Even as I was writing the script, I could see it the mother’s story. She is more present through her absence. I knew Sharmila-di and she liked the script and agreed. So far as Soha Ali Khan goes, I had found her to be extremely disciplined and hard-working when we worked together in Rituparno Ghosh’s Antarmahal. Om Puri and I have known each other for years when I lived in Mumbai. I found he fit into the character of Alok Mathur, the sad man who hides his loneliness behind his bad jokes and tries to make the three girls and their father laugh when they feel like crying..
You have woven in the current Hindu-Muslim conflict into your story. How and why did you work it in?
As an Indian migrant, I am aware of the prejudice between Hindus and Muslims since the days of the Partition in 1947 and the memories of violence and terror, that are tough to dismiss. I find a connection between such past and prejudices and how people view the present world through fixed lenses, interpreting the present through past filters. My protagonist Sanjay Banerjee is struggling to come to terms with his wife’s sudden death. He is forced to forge new relationships with his three daughters. The youngest who he loves the most is expecting the child sired by her Muslim boyfriend. A confrontation between father and the daughter come up. He identifies every Muslim with his childhood friend Imtiaz, who he had seen join in the arson and mayhem against the Hindus as a little boy. The discovery that his favourite daughter is pregnant with the child of a Muslim puts to test the views and values of an older man against the secular and open views of his young daughter who is born, bred and educated in London. How these two resolve their individual beliefs and yet keep their equation alive makes for the final drama in the film.
[ReviewAZON asin=”B0044FDPA4″ display=”inlinepost”]Do you identify with the clash of values, priorities and lifestyles between two generations of an Indian family as you have depicted in the film?
I identify and recognise the stories as live stories around me spanning not only the Bengali diaspora but also the Punjabis. I have seen their conservative side that has not changed at all though they have lived all their lives in Birmingham or Manchester. Honour killings are rampant here and there is a lot of violence against women as I have hinted at through Imtiaz’s Bangladeshi Muslim mother who works with a London-based NGO looking after women who are victims of domestic violence.
You have used a lot of song tracks of various genres in the film though no character is actually into music in that sense. Why?
I wanted to reflect the musicscape of London which is multi-cultural. I am a part of this multi-cultural music myself and so is my son Soumik Datta who has written the musical score of the film. We shot the opening frames to cover the summer festival in Trafalgar Square where a bunch of pretty young Bengali women are dancing to the tunes of Sakhi Kije Sajai Ho that is the first song. One Tagore number bhabona kahare bole translated by Javed Akhtar into Hindi, is sung by Manju during a garden party and the daughters join in. Both versions happen in the film. The other Tagore number, mone rekho, also with its Hindi translation, forms the theme song of the film. There is the famous folk number amaaye dubaili re and there is also an English number. As director, I wanted to show some signature spaces filling them with music that the audience in Southall and Brick Lane has not experienced. I kept away from exploring mainstream spaces in music people are already familiar with. They would not have fitted into the ambience and backdrop of my film. Sanjay recites the famous poem Bonolata Sen authored by Jibananda Das.
You have mentioned several films as deeply influencing factors as director of Life Goes On. Could you elaborate which films these are and how they influenced you?
The films that I drew inspiration from are Secrets and Lies, King Lear, The Valley of Elah, My Son’s Room, Earth, Four Months Three Weeks Four Days, My Son the Fanatic, Utsav and Ray’s The Middleman. Secrets and Lies (1996) directed by Mike Leigh is about a successful Black woman who traces her biological mother to a lower-class White woman who denies it. Emotions run high and everyone’s secrets are threatened to explode. In the Valley of Elah (2007), a retired military investigator works with a police detective to uncover the truth behind his son’s disappearance following his return from a tour of duty in Iraq. I am also deeply indebted to the realist films of Satyajit Ray, Ken Loach, the melodramatic appeal of Ritwik Ghatak, the romance of Bollywood films specially the works of younger filmmakers that form inspirational texts for me.
Shoma A. Chatterji
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